On #TBT, we bring you the occasional classic article – an older review or analysis piece we wanted to rescue
Brant Guillory, 29 November 2018
- Pros: Well-balanced, nifty movement mechanics, gorgeous.
- Cons: Little interaction between players, needs a lot of table space.
Some gamers love the intricate role-playing game full of soliloquies, conspiracy theories, and more character development than a British melodrama. Others would rather dispense with the backstory, role-play an archetypal character, and kick butt. In the early days of computer games, most fantasy ‘role-playing’ was the former, not the latter. Runebound strikes me as one of these computer games, transported to a board game environment.
And don’t think that’s a negative in any way. Some of the most fun I had in my teenage years was in front of Pool of Radiance and the Wizardry series. These games were fantasy adventures, but not necessarily fantasy role-playing. Runebound understands the difference.
Runebound mixes mechanics from card games, hex-and-dice wargames, and early computer games into a fascinating and fun adventure game that can be learned in under 10 minutes and easily played in an evening.
The central story revolves around two nasties named Vorakesh and Margath. Vorakesh, an evil mage, has resurrected Margath, the Dragon High Lord capable of controlling dragons through the use of runes. There are two ways to beat Margath: direct confrontation, or collecting three dragon runes of your own.
Players control the movements of one of twelve different characters, each with his or her own strengths and weaknesses. Characters are rated for two kinds of health – wounds and exhaustion – and three different statistics – mind, body, and spirit. If this is starting to sound like a tri-stat role-playing game, well that’s not too far off. Characters may also have any of a handful of skills, such as tinker, sneak, or diplomacy. The skills are generic and broad-brushed, but it doesn’t take much imagination to visualize how Sir Valadir uses the diplomacy skill in a different way than Spiritspeaker Mok does. The mind, body, and spirit attributes are also used to resolve ranged, melee, and magic attacks, respectively.
Characters move about the board using a unique dice mechanic. The movement dice are six-sided dice with icons representing different terrain on the hexagonal map. Once the dice are rolled, the player decides which dice to use to move through the surrounding terrain. More common terrain (clear, roads) appear on more faces than less common terrain (swamps, mountains).
Scattered across the board are gemstones in one of four colors: green, yellow, blue, and red. Each of these stones represents a potential adventure from one of four adventure decks, each color-coded to the gemstones. These adventures progress in difficulty from green (easy) to red (ouch!). In addition to challenges to be overcome and rewards to be earned, there are some cards – events – that introduce global effects that impact all players. Other cards, called ‘encounters,’ involve side quests or challenges for characters to attempt. Margath, and the six dragon runes are all red adventure cards. Overcoming a challenge earns you a variable number of experience points, and rewards that vary from gold pieces to market items to additional challenges you can place in your opponents’ paths.
There are also eight cities spread around the map. Each of these cities has a corresponding stack of market cards, chock full of weapons, armor, magical items, potions, and hirelings to assist your character in foiling Vorakesh and Margath. While in town, experience points can be exchanged for bonuses to your character. You may boost any of your statistics – mind, body, spirit, exhaustion – but be careful about boosting your wounds. For every additional wound counter you add, you forfeit your ability to take on easier challenges.
Runebound is a blast. It’s a fun fantasy adventure that relies on a mixture of strategic planning, card-draw luck, and exploiting your character’s strengths to come out on top. The random nature of the cards changes the character of each game, and the variety of characters ensures any player will find one to his or her liking.
There are some drawbacks. When a character is wounded, or takes on an exhaustion counter, small cardboard counters (shaped either as hearts or tears, respectively) are added to the character card. Similarly, increases in stats are noted with other rectangular counters. After a while, your character card can become buried under cardboard counters. Larger character cards that are either laminated or slipped into card sleeves, could be marked up with a dry erase marker, reducing the amount of clutter in front of each player. And clutter will accumulate. A three-player game takes up most of the dining room table, since your character will gather allies, equipment, and cards with special effects, as well as stats counters.
To me, the biggest drawback is the relative lack of interaction between the players. Although there are some cards that can be activated by one player to affect another, these are rare. There are provisions for characters to either fight or negotiate, should they find themselves in the same space during the game. But overall, there are 2-6 characters each concerned with completing their own quests in the race to stop Vorakesh and defeat Margath. Fantasy Flight has released several new card expansions for Runebound, as well as one new map, with several others planned. I would like to see some new challenges in these cards that force the players to interact. Placing a bounty on a character that can be collected by the other players, or creating a challenge that requires a team to overcome, would require that players interact with each other, instead of pursuing a solitary quest around a table with other friends.
These are not show-stoppers, however. Runebound is an evening of fun in a rich fantasy setting. It is a well-balanced game that allows players to develop their own challenges along their own roads to glory. The characters are detailed without requiring an extensive understanding of their backgrounds to play. The art is stunning and the components are sturdy and attractive. The game is expandable to a wide variety of items, quests, characters, and maps, some of which are already available. For players who want to complete their quests in an evening instead of a year of weekend game sessions, Runebound is perfect.